09/24/2012 11:39 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

"Traditional Values" Versus Freedom of Information

Do political leaders and journalists have the right to blame the author of the nonsensical B-grade film Innocence of Muslims for the ensuing violence and destructive wrath of the fundamentalists? Should they denounce the provocative actions last week by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo when it published new Muhammad caricatures?

Conciliatory statements have been made to try to douse the flames. Deploring the "excesses of free speech" may be a wise move tactically but, in the long term, it jeopardizes freedom of information, which is a prerequisite for political, economic and social development.

In 2011, the owner of a Pakistani newspaper was shot dead for opposing the country's blasphemy law. In Bangladesh and Afghanistan, journalists have been threatened and imprisoned for the same alleged offense. Tomorrow we shouldn't be forced to consider censoring the work of journalists merely to avoid enraging fundamentalists.

If everyone imposed their own taboos, journalists would be reduced to commenting on the weather.

In 2010, our organization said it was extremely concerned about the resolution passed by the U.N. Human Rights Council on defamation of religions at the behest of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Fortunately, the U.N. General Assembly decided to deal with religious intolerance by other means. But the sectarian supporters of the crime of blasphemy have not laid down their arms. In Tunisia, the version of the constitution now under discussion criminalizes anything that attacks religion. The head of the ruling Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi, said recently: "There should be an international law making attacks on religion a crime, and this should be done through the United Nations."

Aside from the blasphemy issue, a broad coalition is calling worldwide for restrictions on information freedom in the guise of "defending traditional values." On September 14, 2011 Russia, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan put forward a motion in the U.N. General Assembly calling for a "code of conduct for information security" in the name of diversity of history and culture.

In the Human Rights Council, the Russian rapporteur Vladimir Kartashkin has advocated highly retrograde positions such as basing all international standards on unspecified "traditional values."

Ever since the outcry by some 30 NGOs in February this year, things have taken a turn for the better. But who can promise that in the future universal human rights will not be challenged by "traditional values," which will undoubtedly mean those endorsed by the powers that formulate them?

We should point out here the two year-sentences in a labor camp imposed on Pussy Riot for incitement to religious hatred. Uzbekistan increasingly invokes "insult to the traditions and national sentiments of the Uzbek people" to justify cracking down on independent journalists.

The West is not above criticism. In Europe, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union guarantees freedom of religion and the right to criticize religions, but some member states fail to ensure this is safeguarded. Thus in 2010, Ireland made blasphemy a crime punishable by a fine of 25,000 euros.

The political and diplomatic thrust led by Russia, China, the Organization of the Islamic conference and the states of Central Asia, backed by violent Islamic groups, is disconcerting.

Freedom of speech and information is a universal principle. We should focus on preventing the servants of doctrinaire propaganda from using all forms of pressure and trickery to whittle away at Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.